12.22.2015 – As December 25 approaches rapidly, I’d like to kick off this new update by wishing everyone Happy Holidays and a Merry Christmas. I’d also like to thank each and every one of you for your feedback regarding the launch of my ‘Insider’ blog. I’m having a great time with it, and once silly season is over, I look forward to writing about some of the great stories from the pit area, ones that might otherwise go unnoticed. The idea is to bring you a little closer to the MRTI paddock, give you some insight into the assorted ladder programs and put some background stories to the faces you see and the names you hear about each weekend. I’ll also use my blog as a vehicle for some commentary, thoughts and ideas about the sport. The 2016 season is going to be a lot of fun.
INDY LIGHTS PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES
There’s a lot going on right now within the Indy Lights platform, and I’m really digging the excitement and the interest that being fueled. My current spreadsheet has the series at seven confirmed drivers and eight additional open seats, in which I’ve entered my predictions. This puts my list at 15 pilots to start the season, but, I also have a column of ‘maybes’ and when you see six drivers testing for a team with four cars, you get a sense that someone is going to end up elsewhere. I continue to believe that a realistic expectation will be between 14-17 drivers for the opener in Florida, but optimistically, I think positive momentum could push us to 20 pilots come St. Pete. I’m sure that the excitement that would be created with a 20-car field would be welcomed by all.
Here are the confirmed Indy Lights drivers thus far:
Andretti Autosport – Shelby Blackstock, Dalton Kellett
Belardi Auto Racing – Zach Veach
Carlin – Ed Jones
Juncos Racing – Kyle Kaiser, Zach Claman DeMelo
McCormack Motorsports – none
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – RC Enerson
Team Pelfrey – none
One of the most popular drivers in the MRTI is working hard to make sure he’s on the grid for this coming season. I’ve learned that Californian Neil Alberico will be testing with Carlin at Homestead in mid-January, and that Neil’s management is making strides towards getting him in the Indy Lights series for next year. Carlin has Ed Jones signed, and we continue to hear that Milwaukee winner Felix Serralles is in talks for the second seat, which was held by Max Chilton last year. If Alberico can find the backing and can lock in a third seat with the European powerhouse squad, you’d have to believe that a fourth car will find a home at Carlin to fill the second transporter, just as would be the case with Andretti.
To speak more on the news story that I broke on Saturday, Andretti Autosport now has the ex-team Moore Dallara IL-15 in their shop and will be prepping it for competition. If you look within their ranks, and consider the pending hiatus of their ultra-strong Pro Mazda team, the likely candidate for the new car is Malaysian pilot Weiron Tan, would won four races last year on the second rung of the Mazda Road to Indy. As it stands, SPM was the only team with more than two cars last year, and Andretti’s move to three cars would logically set them up for four cars to fill the second transporter.
One of the most interesting stories out of testing in December has been the dedicated efforts of McCormack Motorsports and Davey Hamilton Jr.. The USAC star has been logging significant mileage at Buttonwillow Raceway Park and could indeed be on the grid in 2016.
PRO MAZDA PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES
While we are seeing a flurry of driver announcements and action for Indy Lights and USF2000, the Pro Mazda program has been fairly quiet thus far. Juncos Racing has made the most noise, confirming all four of their drivers for the 2016 season. They made the final driver call at the PRI Show in Indy earlier in the month when they unveiled that Canadian Garett Grist would be back for his third season of Pro Mazda competition. He will be a lead contender for the championship out of the gate. Aside from Juncos, it will be interesting to see how things unfold for last year’s champions Team Pelfrey and the always-impressive Cape Motorsports, as they have tested numerous drivers since the end of the season.
Here are the confirmed Pro Mazda drivers thus far:
Andretti Autosport – none
Cape Motorsports – none
JDC MotorSports – none
Juncos Racing – Garett Grist, Will Owen, Jake Parsons, Nicolas Dapero
M1 Racing – Jay Horak (limited schedule), Carlos Conde (limited schedule)
Team Pelfrey – none
World Speed Motorsports – Bobby Eberle
First and foremost, the question regarding USF2000 champion Nico Jamin’s team of choice remains up in the air. I’ve heard that the deal has already been signed, but Mazda has always done a great job keeping this news hidden until the official announcement. Jamin has tested for both Team Pelfrey and his winning team from last year, Cape Motorsports. Personally, I expect Nico to stick with Cape Motorsports for 2016 to make a run at the championship.
You’d have to expect that Team Pelfrey will start making their announcements when we arrive in the new year. We fully expect that Pato O’Ward will return for his sophomore season, and a very successful test for USF2000 grad Aaron Telitz could kick the team up a notch if he’s able to put the finishing touches on his budget. There has not been any further action with Team Pelfrey since my last update, so we’re all waiting to find out what’s coming.
JDC MotorSports is working closely with a couple of drivers who are looking to secure Pro Mazda seats for the 2016 season. John Church confirmed with me that he’d like to run two USF2000 cars and two Pro Mazda cars next year, to complete what will be an exciting season for the squad. They will return to the Prototype Lites series as the reigning champions, they’ll run former MRTI driver Michael Johnson in a new BMW in the Continental Tire Series and will, of course, be gunning for the IMSA Prototype Challenge title in their ORECA FLM09. As of now, the only Pro Mazda confirmation is that the team will run Expert driver Kevin Davis in 4-5 events this season.
COOPER TIRES USF2000 CHAMPIONSHIP POWERED BY MAZDA
I’m loving all of the action that is surrounding the USF2000 program this off-season. There are a number of new drivers who have surfaced to test for the assorted teams, and while I’ve been able to get some insider info, other teams are being very secretive. We have seven confirmed drivers thus far, but I expect the floodgates to open in January. There are lots of cars and lots of teams available, so as things being to shake down, this is going to get very interesting.
Here are the confirmed drivers:
Afterburner Autosport – none
ArmsUp Motorsports – none
Cape Motorsports – Parker Thompson
Jay Motorsports – none
JDC MotorSports – none
John Cummiskey Racing – none
Pabst Racing – Garth Rickards
RJB Motorsports – Michai Stephens, Clint McMahan
Swan Racing – Max Mällinen
Team Pelfrey – Jordan Cane, Robert Megennis
The biggest news since my last update was the confirmation of Parker Thompson at Cape Motorsports. The Canadian was part of the trio of leading rookies that I had expected to fill the two Cape seats after Garth Rickards formally signed with Pabst Racing, which also included Nikita Lastochkin and Luke Gabin. The final drive still remains open and I’m hearing an announcement is forthcoming. Nikita was very strong in the Cape car at the COTA test, which I believe makes him the lead candidate, and Gabin could easily return to team Pelfrey for a second season, which makes more sense for them as they rolled into 2015 with four raw rookies. A better approach for the team, which now has cars on all three rungs of the MRTI, would be to have two rookie and two sophomores. Ayla Agren and Luke Gabin would fit those positions nicely. That said, while Cape ran just two cars last year, they have run three cars in the past, so Gabin may still be vying for a spot.
My sources have told me that Skip Barber Championship Shootout winner Dakota Dickerson’s test with Afterburner Autosport at Buttonwillow went extremely well. The young Californian gelled with the team and was turning some extremely quick laps in his maiden USF2000 outing. I’m also told that Afterburner’s Tim Walsh is in discussions with at least two additional drivers, including one who would certainly be a frontrunner, and their focus is to get all four of the team’s cars on-track in 2016.
Jay Motorsports will be testing a driver during the first of next week in Florida. No word yet on the name of the pilot.
John Cummiskey Racing is coming off an impressive debut season, finishing fourth with Anthony Martin. John has been testing drivers under the radar, but tells me that he is in negotiations with a couple of pilots now. He’s expects to have at least two cars for 2016, and potentially a third. Considering what they were able to do as a one-car team in ’15, they could be incredibly competitive with a full brace of drivers and their accompanying track data.